HC Deb 16 December 1997 vol 303 cc241-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Janet Anderson.]

10.15 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the subject of bypasses for north-east Hertfordshire. My constituency contains the Letchworth garden city, small market towns such as Royston, Baldock and Buntingford, and many small villages. This debate is about heavy, noisy, polluting traffic that goes through the heart of two small market towns—Baldock and Royston—and four small villages—Thundridge, Wadesmill, Colliers End and High Cross, all of which are in my constituency.

The three road schemes that have been proposed would make a real difference to those communities. I shall deal first with Baldock. I have lived in Royston for some 16 years and have travelled almost every day to or through Baldock. As one goes down the hill, morning or evening, from Royston towards Baldock, there is an immense queue of traffic—lorries and cars streaming back from Baldock all the way to the dual carriageway some half a mile away.

The problem has been identified as a major traffic bottleneck for some 40 years. The A505 is an important road to my constituency, not only for those who live in the area but for those trying to do business in Royston, Letchworth and Baldock. The need for a bypass has long been recognised. Residents feel inconvenienced by the traffic, the delays interfere with commercial traffic and local people fear the pollution that it causes. The local pressure group, the Campaign against Continued Traffic Damage to Children, led by Mr. Gingell, has for years been asking for fair, just and compassionate consideration to the health interests of Baldock children who walk to school and live against a background of heavy traffic and pollution.

Since I was elected in 1992,I have been pressing for action. In 1995, we finally had a public inquiry, which led to the granting of planning permission and to the statutory orders that are now in place. The bypass project could therefore go ahead now if the money could be found. Hertfordshire county council considers this its first priority as a public-private partnership project, but feels that it needs help from the Government with the start-up costs for the project—the cost of the financial and legal experts to explore, negotiate and conclude the award of the contract. The cost is quite small—only £500,000 spread over three years.

I know that officials from the Minister's Department are in discussions with the Hertfordshire county council. My first plea to the Minister is this: after all those years of effort, now that we have reached the point where the road could be built, is it not possible to find £500,000, so that this public-private partnership of such high priority to Hertfordshire and to my constituency can go ahead? That is surely not such a large sum to resolve a huge problem for my constituents.

I notice the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) in her place. I imagine that that project would also help her constituents, many of whom travel to work in my constituency, just as many of my constituents travel to work in hers.

The second project concerns the A10. I notice in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), who has campaigned for many years for the Wadesmill to Puckeridge bypass.

As one drives north on the A10 from Hertford, one goes through the dual carriageway at Ware and comes to a narrow section of single carriageway, which starts at Thundridge and passes through the centre of that village, Wadesmill, Colliers End and High Cross. This is a trunk road with a heavy toll of traffic.

Many of the inhabitants, including the elderly, children and the disabled, are effectively denied access on foot to other parts of the village because of the monstrous stream of heavy vehicles running through the middle of tiny villages. The accident record has always been bad on that stretch of road, but it is worsening, and the pressures will exacerbate the situation.

The traffic to Stansted airport is increasing. The passenger volumes proposed for Stansted are to increase from 5 million a year to 15 million a year. All that will have an effect on the narrow stretch of road that is one of the natural routes into London or across country from Stansted airport.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he accept that, in line with the Government's current policy of looking at the environmental damage caused by traffic congestion, the bypass, at modest cost, would bring enormous environmental advantages to the villages that would be bypassed by it, and thereby improve hugely the life of the children and others who live on the congested narrow A 10 passage between Wadesmill and Puckeridge?

Mr. Heald

My hon. Friend and Mr. Harry Tee, who has been leading the campaign for the bypass, have made that point at public meetings and had huge support from local residents, many of whom have petitioned on the matter for some years. Not only would there be an environmental benefit to the villages, but the route of the bypass would not create any environmental damage, because it would not go deep into the apron of the nearby countryside.

There are many listed buildings in east Hertfordshire along the road—homes right next to the road—and there are numerous awkward private accesses to the road. Road conditions that are already poor, with poor gradient, camber and visibility, have the additional problem of awkward accesses from private homes on to a major trunk road.

County Councillor David Beatty, who has been campaigning for some time, points out that pollution from the lorries is blown from the road into two primary schools at Thundridge and High Cross that abut the road. It is not satisfactory for that to continue. If the Minister drove up that road, as she may have done, she would see sign after sign on listed buildings and homes adjacent to the road saying "Bypass Now". That is the plea that I am making tonight.

The scheme has huge public support and full planning permission-all the statutory orders that it needs. It is ready to go. The county council is now suggesting, in conjunction with East Hertfordshire district council, that in terms of the Government's consultation document, "What role for trunk roads in England?", all the significant criteria exist for a bypass to be built. In that context, I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to including the scheme in the trunk roads programme.

Finally, I turn to the matter of Royston, which is situated where the A10 and A505 roads meet. At the crossroads, the Roy stone—an ancient base for a cross which has been there since mediaeval times—gives the town its name. Although there is a bypass of the A505 from west to east, there is demand in Royston for a bypass of the A10, which would complete the traffic measures for that town.

At present, heavy traffic passes through the centre of Royston. The problem was studied by consultants for the Department of Transport and, in 1994, the Highways Agency announced that it had recommended that bypasses be built at both Royston. and Harston in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who is in his place tonight. The then Minister decided not to proceed immediately, but agreed to meet me and County Councillor Doyle, District Councillor Smith and Town Mayor Kate Evans. We met John Watts on 26 October 1994 to press the case for a Royston south-east bypass. The Minister agreed to a package of improvements on the A10 south of Royston costing £200,000 and he promised to keep the case for a bypass under review.

I pay tribute to the Royston campaigners—particularly the late Peter Ratcliff—and ask the Minister for an assurance that the proposed Royston bypass will be kept under review. What are the prospects of the bypass going ahead under the Government's new regime? Heavy traffic pours down Melbourne road in Royston, which is used by children who attend the main schools in the town that are located on the other side of the A10. The hospital is also situated on the A10 and residents who wish to visit it must cross a stream of heavy traffic.

Those considerations—and the fact that heavy lorries have consistently knocked down the railings near the cinema in the centre of Royston together with other problems of that sort—have led to a demand for action. I ask the Minister to do a hat trick for north-east Hertfordshire and give the three schemes a fair wind.

10.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on securing the debate and on his generosity not only in allowing an intervention from the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) but in highlighting the attendance in the Chamber of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). The number of hon. Members gathered for this Adjournment debate tonight clearly illustrates the importance of the topic that we are discussing.

The case put by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire was not only eloquent and informed, but highlighted a problem in his constituency and the immediate area that I am sure he realises can be replicated throughout the United Kingdom. Concerns about safety, environmental pollution and the economic impact of traffic congestion affect everyone in the country. That is why the Government have embarked on the roads review and the consultation process and why we are committed to publishing next year a White Paper on which our integrated transport strategy will build.

Before I address the specific concerns raised this evening, it may be helpful if I define the overall thrust of our integrated transport policies and the stage that we have reached in the consultation process. Our consultation document on developing an integrated transport policy was published in August. We are aiming at a shift away from the fragmented provision of infrastructure and services to an integrated approach that will serve the country's needs for a strong economy, a sustainable environment and an inclusive society—all issues on which the hon. Gentleman touched in his opening remarks. Good communications are essential to that improved quality of life, but we must reduce our over-dependence on the car and the lorry if we are not to be choked by increasing pollution and gridlocked by increasing congestion. Our integrated transport policy consultations have received about 6,500 replies. We are analysing those responses and preparing for the publication of a White Paper next year.

We decided that our roads review should be conducted as openly as possible. In July, we published a two-volume consultation document entitled "What Role for Trunk Roads in England?", a document to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Volume 1 invited comments on general policy issues while volume 2 set out the position in each region and explained the schemes in the roads programme inherited from the previous Government. No schemes were included in the inherited programme as they had already been dropped. However, we have said that we are not ruling out schemes outside the inherited programme if they meet the five roads review criteria of integration, accessibility, safety, economy and the environment, and also rate a sufficiently high priority.

We intend that the output of the roads review should include, first, a short-term investment programme and, secondly, a programme of studies to consider the remaining problems, from which we shall develop the medium and longer-term investment programme.

To help us decide what should go into the short-term investment programme, we are developing a new appraisal framework that will enable us to see how far each proposal will tackle the problem in question, and how it will measure up against the five review criteria to which I have referred. We are not, need I say, anti-car. Indeed, we recognise that there are some problems to which road construction is the only answer. However, before we wish to sign up to new road building we wish to be clear that all other options have been considered, including public transport improvements, demand management and traffic management.

I have said that we had a good response to the consultation process. We organised consultation exercises on a regional basis to encourage debate in each area about the needs and priorities. This is much in line with our intention to strengthen the English regions and encourage partnership, co-ordination of programmes and local decision making. We do not want everything to be directed from London.

Our recent publication of the White Paper entitled "Building Partnerships for Prosperity", with its proposals for new regional development agencies, shows the direction in which we wish to move. The Government envisage that RDAs will influence the development of integrated transport strategies for each region. Their exact role will be considered further as part of our work on the integrated transport White Paper.

As part of the roads review consultation exercise for the eastern region, which includes the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the Government Office conducted two working sessions for local transport authorities, business and environmental interests at which every trunk road in the region was examined in detail. The results of that exercise were fed into a regional conference on integrated transport on 23 October, which was attended by more than 200 delegates. This process allowed plenty of time for delegates to contribute to the consultations following these events.

On 3 December, my noble Friend the Minister for roads invited all hon. Members from constituencies in the eastern region to hear a summary of the consultation results and to put their points direct to her. I know that the hon. Gentleman was unable to attend that meeting due to his duties as a Whip, but I hope that he will be able to attend the further meeting that has been arranged for 20 January. We regard it as important for Members to be able to make representations directly to the Minister. All these various strands of consultation will feed into our decision-making process.

The responses from the regional consultation indicate that local bypasses are generally popular and seen as valuable on environmental and safety grounds, which is a point that the hon. Gentleman made. Indeed, the eastern region office has received more than 300 letters about trunk road schemes in the region.

I move on to the specific issues to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. All remaining improvement schemes for the A I 0 were withdrawn from the programme in 1996. The Wadesmill, High Cross and Colliers End bypass had successfully cleared public inquiry so its removal from the programme caused no small consternation in all those communities along the A10 that would have benefited.

In the regional consultation, the argument for the reinstatement of the Wadesmill scheme accorded with the views that the hon. Gentleman expressed this evening. The regional consultation exercise has also considered which roads need to be managed nationally. One view was that the A10, lying between the A1 and M11, could be de-trunked and managed locally by Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire county councils. Preliminary discussions were held some time ago between the Highways Agency and the county councils and some of the works identified are being put in hand. However, a decision on de-trunking will not be made in advance on the review. In the meantime, the planning protection for the A10 Wadesmill, High Cross and Colliers End bypass is being maintained.

No proposal for an A 10 Royston south-east bypass has featured in the trunk road programme, but I am aware than the hon. Gentleman and residents of Royston have pressed for the inclusion of such a scheme for some years. It would be impossible for any Royston bypass to be included in the short-term programme, as no preparatory work has been done. As I explained earlier, besides the short-term investment programme, our review will also propose corridor studies to bring forward strategies for longer-term development of the trunk road network.

At this stage in the consultation process, I am unable to give any indication as to the likelihood of either scheme featuring in the final programme, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that his representations will receive the most careful consideration.

I will deal with the A505 Baldock bypass separately, as it is a local scheme being promoted, as the hon. Gentleman said, by Hertfordshire county council. It is not part of the trunk road review. The£33 million bypass was successfully taken through public inquiry in 1995, but it has not been started, as very few major schemes have been started in the past two years. In our guidance for this year's transport policies and programme submissions, we have warned local authorities that it is very unlikely that any major schemes will start construction in 1998–99. In Hertfordshire's latest TPP, the main works are shown to start in July 1999, but there is a considerable amount of archaeological investigation to do on site before construction work can start. There are also supplementary orders to progress.

In view of the difficulties in obtaining traditional funding, Hertfordshire has considered taking the project forward by using the local authority private finance initiative. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, it has had preliminary discussions with my officials to explore the work that would be needed to promote such a project. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the council is concerned that it may have to invest considerably more resources in the project, in preparing a PFI contract, without any guarantee of success.

Generally, we do not fund scheme preparation, and grants become payable only in the year in which the works start. Therefore, we would not normally fund such preparation, but we have allocated a further £200 million for private finance transport schemes, and will consider again the difficulties that authorities have in funding the cost of contract preparation, and the uncertainty inherent in the process.

The Government's approach to projects where authorities seek a partnership with the private sector are clear. Over recent months, the Government have acted on their commitment to deliver on public-private partnerships in the local authority sector. We have taken three major steps. The new Local Government (Contracts) Act 1997 has removed legal barriers for authorities. The level of 1998–99 investment that we are prepared to back has been announced—at £500 million this is double the resources available this year. Last week, we announced the criteria for new streamlined procedures to give the private sector and local authorities greater assurance—at an earlier stage—that commercially viable projects that accord with Government priorities will secure support.

Government Departments, the, Treasury task force, the Local Government Association—through the public-private partnership programme, the 4Ps—and local authorities will work together in promoting projects that are high priority and viable propositions.

I am aware that, because it is new, authorities face different costs in developing project procurement cases using the design, build, finance and operate—DBFO—route. At present, this is still an expensive process because there are very few precedents. However, the costs will fall as the documentation and procedures become familiar.

For road schemes, my Department has released to the 4Ps the model contract used by the Highways Agency for eight DBFO roads. While this needs further work to fit the circumstances of local authority projects, it is still a substantial contribution to minimising the costs.

The hon. Gentleman asks that we should go further and give direct financial support to authorities for their initial costs. However, the Government must consider the case for any such support in the context of the many other bids that we receive from authorities each year.

Before the House rises for the recess, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport will announce the TPP settlement for 1998–99. I cannot prejudge the announcement now, but every year more worthwhile projects are submitted than can possibly be afforded. Authorities have already been warned that the available funding is likely to be tightly constrained.

I repeat that I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing these interesting matters to the attention of the House. I welcome the debate and the points made by the hon. Gentleman in support of bypass schemes in north-east Hertfordshire. I hope that he will be able to attend the meeting with my noble Friend the Minister for Roads in the new year to make a further contribution to the consultation process.

I know that the hon. Gentleman will realise that I am unable to give any of the assurances that he seeks about these schemes tonight as we are still in the middle of the consultation process, but I reassure him again that the proposals that he has put forward will be considered very carefully.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o ' clock.